The Power of Music in Dementia Care

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From time to time we all get a song stuck in our heads. After a while, it can become aggravating because we can’t stop hearing it and humming it. However, when it comes to Alzheimer’s disease, that is a good thing. Music therapy is beneficial and calming for those with dementia. The familiar strains of music reactivate memory centers and create a feeling of pleasure.

Neurologist Oliver Sacks, MD has watched this phenomenon firsthand and relates it in an article in Alzheimer’s Weekly. “In a severe dementia, one may have lost the power of language and may have lost most of one’s ‘event memory’, so one can remember very little of one’s past. But one will always remember songs one has heard and sung and familiar music.

“The parts of the brain which respond to music are very close to the parts of the brain concerned with memory, emotion, and mood. So familiar songs will bring back memories, perhaps, of when the music was originally heard. It may have been an outing, something on Coney Island, the kids were there. All this which has been lost in amnesia will come back, as if it were embedded in a familiar song. It can come back.”

As a caregiver of a loved one who is suffering with dementia, you can use music to improve his or her mood, calm agitation and restore a sense of joy that can last for hours after the music has stopped. Here are some tips on how to select the best music.

  • Select songs from the years when your loved one was aged 18 – 25.
  • The more advanced the stage of dementia, the younger the music should be. Severe stages of dementia will respond to music from elementary school years.
  • Play music in your loved one’s native language. That will produce the deepest engagement with the music.
  • Pay attention to whether the music is energizing with drums and percussion or soothing like lullabies and ballads. Use the music to calm anxiety and agitation, encourage sleep or nurture a sense of happiness.
  • Music can also improve balance and gait. In the early and middle stages of dementia, encourage your loved one to stand up and dance with you. Even a swaying waltz will be good exercise.

Music can improve the mood of people with neurological diseases, boost cognitive skills and reduce the need for antipsychotic drugs. The AARP reported fascinating findings about the power of music for Alzheimer’s patients, including this anecdote:

Jane Flinn, a behavioral neuroscientist at George Mason University, and graduate student Linda Maguire tested the effects of singing on 45 people with Alzheimer’s disease with songs like “Somewhere Over the Rainbow” and “Isn’t It Romantic?” They conducted regular cognitive tests on the group and found that the mental acuity of those who sang regularly went up sharply over a four-month period. ‘Twenty-one drugs to treat Alzheimer’s have failed in the last nine years,’ Flinn says. ‘I do believe they will eventually find the right drug, but in the meantime, these non-pharmaceutical approaches are helpful.’

One of the most amazing effects of music for dementia patients is that even if they are nonverbal, they can still sing the lyrics to songs they love. AARP related the experience of Connie Tomaino, considered one of music therapy’s pioneers. More than 37 years ago, she walked into a dementia unit carrying her guitar and looked at the patients. “Many were overmedicated. Half of them were catatonic and had feeding tubes. The ones that were agitated had mitts on their hands and were tied to wheelchairs. I just started singing ‘Let Me Call You Sweetheart.’ Many of the people who were considered to be catatonic lifted up their heads and looked at me. And the people who were agitated stopped being upset. Most of them started singing the words to the song.”

If you would like to use music therapy for your loved one at home, the Alzheimer’s Foundation of America has great tips on how to use music effectively for every stage of the disease. If music therapy is a bit out of your realm, don’t be afraid to take it back to basics, practicing a little love and patience with dementia care.